Category: Books

“I spent eleven years not finishing my Ph.d.”

Vikram Seth, author of the renowned A Suitable Boy, passed much of his life in the economics Ph.d. program at Stanford.  His latest book, Two Lives, recounts:

I discovered soon after I had begun my compulsory courses in macroeconomics and microeconomics that I could not get by without wasting a whole lot of time studying. 

He adds:

The subject was dry, mathematically unrealistic and intellectually unchallenging [TC: it took him eleven years to figure that out???  I know someone who needed less time].

That is from a preface of sorts.  Most of the book concerns Shanti, an Indian relation of Seth’s who moves to Berlin in 1931 to study dentistry; Shanti falls in love with a Jewish girl and later marries her.  The narrative is sentimental and the authorial intrusions are often mawkish, yet the main storyline delivers. 

Keep Seth in mind the next time you feel frustrated at your ne’er do well graduate students.

Addendum: If you, like I, are also a sucker for the Stalinist romance, try Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, compulsively readable and well above average for its genre.

Second addendum: Read this interview with Seth, thanks to Pablo Halkyard for the pointer.

Why do you buy books?

Driven partly by pressure from incessant literary prize shortlists, more than one in three consumers in London and the south-east admit having bought a book "solely to look intelligent", the YouGov survey says.

It finds one in every eight young people confessing to choosing a book "simply to be seen with the latest shortlisted title". This herd instinct dwindles to affect only one in 20 over-50 year-olds…

…the results indicate that "reading" is a relative term. When asked about specific titles, only one in 25 people turn out to have read the novel chosen as the best in the Booker prize’s 25-year history, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – and half these had failed to finish it.

Only one in 100 had read Andrew Levy’s Small Island, picked earlier this month as the best of all Orange prize winners. Not a single reader had yet opened this month’s Booker winner, John Banville’s The Sea.

Other strongly publicised titles endorsed by literary panels fare only slightly better. One in 20 members of the public has read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and only one in 25 Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

Some consumers hedge their bets by keeping two titles on the go – one an impressive book to show other people, the other an escapist work to enjoy.

The biggest group, more than two in every five people, follows the traditional method of choosing their reading; relying on recommendations from close family and friends.

The sample’s own top 10 titles, a mixture of classic and popular, is: the Bible, Lord of the Rings, one or other of the Harry Potter stories, Catch-22, Animal Farm, The Hobbit, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Da Vinci Code, Wuthering Heights.

Here is the story.  By the way, why do you read blogs? 

Addendum: refers us to some selected one-star Amazon reviews of the classic works.

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

Benjamin Friedman has just published The Moral Consequences of Economic GrowthPublisher’s Weekly notes: "This probing study argues that, far from fostering rapacious materialism, economic growth is a prerequisite for the creation of a liberal, open society." 

Here is Joseph Stiglitz’s review from Foreign Affairs, a classic example of first lip service to growth and then bit-by-bit retraction.  Thanks to for the pointer.

What I’ve been reading

Warped Passages: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall.  Have you ever tried to read those Scientific American articles on the weak and strong forces, or on how we might live in a three-dimensional universe on a 3 + n dimensional brane?  This book is the closest you will get to understanding such matters.  You can skip the chunk which recaps Einstein and quantum mechanics.  Alternatively, you might wait until scientists figure out the apparent paradoxes, and then read a book with the answers.

Veronica: A Novel, by Mary Gaitskill.  If I like a novel about an aging hippie temptress with hepatitis, and her older AIDS-ridden friend, and the sadomasochism of the fashion world, it must have something going for it.  Nominated for a National Book Award, and rightfully so.

Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000, by James McCann.  If you are ever bored, go out and read all the books about the history of corn you can find.  Start here.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt.  I know what you are thinking.  "I read Tony Judt all the time.  I already know lots about Europe after 1945.  Why do I need this 800-page book?  Why should I pay almost $40?"  Don’t be lured down that fallacious path.  Go for the excellent book by the excellent author, every time.

How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, by Mark Bittman.  If you could only own one cookbook, this would probably be it.

The Undercover Economist, part II

I once made the mistake of entering into a sportsman’s bet with the economist John Kay.  He wondered what would have happened if you had bought shares in the Great Western Railway, the most famous of all the rail companies in Britain, the birthplace of train travel.  He speculated that even had you bought them on the first day they were available, and held them for the long term, your returns would have been quite modest, say, less than 10 percent a year.  I couldn’t conceive that one of the most successful companies of the railroad revolution could have possibly returned such a modest sum to shareholders.  Off I went to flick through dusty nineteenth-century editions of The Economist and find out the answer.  Of course, Kay was right.  Not long after the Great Western Railway shares were put on sale for 100 pounds a share in 1835, there was a tremendous burst of speculation in rail shares.  Great Western shares peaked at 224 pounds in 1845, ten years after the company was formed.  Then they crashed and never reached that level again in the century-long life of the company.  The long-term investor would have received dividend payments and would have made a respectable but unremarkable 5 percent annual return…

Here is my previous post on Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, the hot popular economics book of the moment.  Here is a history of the railway.

The Undercover Economist

Companies find it more profitable to increase prices (above the sale price) by a larger amount on an unpredictable basis than by a small amount in a predictable way.  Customers find it trouble some to avoid unpredictable price increases — and may not even notice them for lower-value goods — but easy to avoid predictable ones…

Have you noticed that supermarkets often charge ten times as much for fresh chili peppers in a package as for loose fresh chilies?  That’s because the typical customer buys such small quantities that he doesn’t think to check whether they cost four cents or forty.  Randomly tripling the price of a vegetable is a favorite trick: customers who notice the markup just buy a different vegetable that week; customers who don’t have self-targeted a whopping price rise. 

I once spotted a particularly inspired trick while on a search for potato chips.  My favorite brand was available on the top shelf in salt and pepper flavor and on the bottom shelf, just a few feet away, in other flavors, all the same size.  The top-shelf potato chips cost 25 percent more, and customers who reached for the top shelf demonstrated that they hadn’t made a price-comparison between two near-identical products in near-identical locations.  They were more interested in snacking.

That is from Tim Harford’s new The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich are Rich, the Poor are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car (don’t trust Amazon, the release date is November, not January).  This book is one of the very best introductions to the economic way of thinking.   "Required Reading," says Steve Levitt, what better endorsement could you want?

Here is Tim’s home page, including his FT "Dear Economist" columns.  Here is Tim’s Private Sector Development Blog.  Here is Tim’s recent FT piece on Thomas Schelling.  Comments are open, in case you have other examples of comparable supermarket tricks.

The future of the book trade?

With its snazzy new "Great Ideas" series released this month, Penguin Books hopes to provide an economical remedy for time-pressed readers in search of intellectual sustenance.

Each of the paperbacks costs $8.95 and offers readers a sampling of the world’s great non-fiction. For example, the Gibbon book is a slim 92-page selection called The Christians and the Fall of Rome. It presents Gibbon as sort of an intellectual tapas to be savored in one sitting.

Here is the full story.  Like it or not, I see the non-fiction sector as heading toward shorter and shorter books.  Can you do one hundred pages on monetary policy?  Get this:

Because "we want readers to be able to get close to the text," the books do not have introductions or prefaces, Penguin publisher Kathryn Court says. "It’s daunting. There are so many books and so little time."

Thomas More discovered the Pareto compensation principle

The following is not bad for the early sixteenth century:

…another [advisor] advises him to prohibit many practices with heavy fines, especially those that are contrary to the public interest, noting that later he can make a monetary arrangement with those whose interests are hurt by the laws and that thus he can win the gratitude of the people and make a double profit, first from fining those whom greed has led on into his trap and then by selling dispensations to others…

If you want to publish a history of thought piece, you will find unexplored law and economics in Thomas More.  Then you can move on to Montesquieu, circa 1748.  It didn’t start with Beccaria and Bentham.

Utopia has been one of the most misunderstood books in the history of ideas.  More did not intend his utopia as a normative proposal.  Instead it is his vision of how society would work if no one responded to approbational incentives of honor and shame.  There would be fewer vanities and absurdities of many kinds, but extreme punishments would be needed to prevent people from breaking the law.  No one would keep the law for the sake of honor.  In reality, utopia is impossible, as pride and property are indispensable and society rests upon the foibles of men.  The book is an early classic of social science, and a precursor of Smith’s TMS, but read it from back to front.

Is the Singularity Near?

The first half of the twenty-first century will be characterized by three overlapping revolutions — in Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics.  These will usher in what I referred to earlier as Epoch Five, the beginning of the Singularity.

So writes Ray Kurzweil.  In other words, we will reverse engineer the human brain and turn people into computer uploads, all within the next century.  At the very least you will be an advanced cyborg.  In the meantime buy the book (p.s.: you can stop worrying about the Medicare fiscal train wreck, although you should exercise more to reach immortality).

No, I won’t dispute the science on any single point, but nonetheless I feel confident in my skepticism.  I am still waiting for an Internet Explorer that doesn’t crash, and for an NBA with the common sense to move out the three-point line.  More generally, Kurzweil has thirty-four good arguments why his scenario will happen, but only one of those has to fail.

Still, Ray Kurzweil must be the most important thinker today, if only in expected value terms, putting the complexities of Pascal’s Wager aside.  It is no longer intellectually acceptable not to know his major arguments.  Here is the book’s web site.  Glenn Reynolds offers useful commentary and linksArnold Kling is a fanAddendum: Read James Miller’s TCS review as well.

Growth fact of the day

…out of nineteen non-Western countries that belonged to the rich club in 1960, only four remained there (the Bahamas, Japan, Mauritius, and Slovenia) [in 2000].

Or perhaps you are wondering which countries, according to available statistics, appeared on the verge of crossing over into the "rich" category in 1960?  Here is the list:

Lithuania, Serbia and Montenegro, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia (addendum: no, I don’t believe the data), Ukraine, Croatia, Haiti (!), Guyana, Jamaica, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, the Congo (!), Senegal, Gabon, Ghana, Singapore, Iran, and Hong Kong.  At the time many of these countries lagged only slightly behind Portugal.

The lesson?  Don’t take your future prosperity for granted.

That is all from the very interesting Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality, by Branko Milanovic.  Here is more information on the book.  Here are the author’s working papersThis paper argues for allowing the free movement of soccer players onto teams outside their nationality.

Sales of new novels and romances during the Romantic period

Yes, it is Sir Walter ScottWaverely, from 1814, sold about 40,000 copies; Guy Mannering sold about 50,000.  His twenty-third bestselling novel (unidentified) sold about ten thousand copies.  The twenty-fourth bestselling novel from this period — Fanny Burney’s Camilla — sold only four thousand.  Scott was first also in the poetry market, with Byron a close second.  Moore, Campbell, Rogers, and Southey dominate Coleridge and Wordsworth. 

Keep all that in mind next time you despair about Dan Brown on the bestseller lists.  More generally, we are leaving "winner-take-all" markets behind, not moving toward them.

The numbers are from William St. Clair’s excellent The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.  Here is my previous post on the book.